Fitness and Form: Chicken or Egg?

Jan 19, 2013   //   by James Dunne   //   Running Technique Advice  //  4 Comments

Yesterday an email landed in my inbox from a prospective coaching client, an age group Ironman triathlete with an interesting question about running form:

When I run with better form I’m faster. When I run faster my HR goes up, so I can’t sustain it for long. I can run intervals with what I consider to be good form, but as I slow or aim to run long (in my case for the Ironman marathon) the quality of my form decreases. Seems to be a case of chicken and egg!

Does form actually follow fitness? Which is why when I see video clips of Kenyans running they have great form, it’s because they’re fit and fast!?

This got me thinking. Perhaps my answer would come best in the form of a blog post. So here it is…

Does Improved Fitness Equal Better Form?

Regardless of the sport, it’s fairly intuitive to say that while good form isn’t guaranteed by improving fitness, it is easier to maintain good form as fitness improves. Essentially by improving fitness, you’re simply putting off the point of fatigue at which technique begins to fall apart.

Good form will always be more evident in the athlete when he/she is fresh, than in a fatigued state – whether that fatigue has been achieved through a short, hard effort, or a long, steady endurance effort. This is as true for running as it is for swimming and other sports.

They key, however is that good running form must initially be learned as a skill and then developed and reenforced as a movement pattern. Like all physical skills, this will come more easily for some than others, and we all need to spend time working on it on an ongoing basis.

Running Form And Speed: Both Skills

While I wouldn’t say that running faster automatically makes all athletes run with better form, I sometimes do see a connection between these speed and improved technique in certain runners. Frequently I meet distance runners who (as you describe) seem to be able to demonstrate improved running form as they increase pace towards their Anaerobic Interval pace, and faster.

Interestingly, I often notice that these distance runners have a sprint or middle distance track background, or maybe are ex-football / rugby / hockey players. These runners seem to improve in posture and stride length as they recruit the correct muscle groups (Glutes and Hamstrings in particular) more readily with the increased intensity of activity.

There seems to be some truth in what coach Alberto Salazar says about “learning to run like a sprinter being an important part of developing as a distance runner. It’s worth noting though that he works with distance runners who compete at much faster paces than you or I!

Conversely, many runners, especially those who report the feeling of being “one paced”, display few observable changes in running technique across various speeds / intensities. If anything, their particular technique flaws (e.g landing ahead of center of mass) get more pronounced as they try to run faster. No doubt this is why they find it harder to increase running pace comfortably – as they’re fighting a constant biomechanical battle against themselves!

One big factor in this seems to be leg speed (stride frequency or running cadence). Running pace is of course dictated by a combination of stride frequency and stride length.

A runner with poor form will try to speed up from 5:30min/km to 4:00min/km by increasing stride length disproportionately more than any increase in their stride frequency. Encouraging a less efficient, over striding gait pattern, and experiencing increased braking forces the come with it.

The more efficient and skilled runner however, will try to speed up from 5:30min/km to 4:00min/km by combining an increase in stride length with an appropriate increase in stride frequency. Maintaining contact with the ground closer to under the center of mass, and a short contact time encouraging the spring-like transferral of forces through the lower limb.

I find that lots of “one paced” runners really struggle with increasing leg speed (cadence).

Cycling Analogy

To use an analogy from the world of cycling: The skill of running with good form is like selecting the appropriate gear on when cycling.

Think of stride length as your gear selection, and cycling cadence (rpm) being the equivalent to stride frequency in running.

On the flat, we can all cycle fast for a short period by selecting a big gear, dropping your cadence and grinding it out. This becomes quite hard work after a while!

On the other hand, if you select too small a gear, you need to cycle at an unsustainably high cadence to achieve the desired speed.

So the skilled cyclist will be able to find an appropriate (optimal) combination of gear selection and cadence for the desired speed, so that they can sustain the pace, for the desired duration.

We can all re-train ourselves to perfect this skill.

Developing Good Steady Pace Running Form

You describe being able to maintain a feeling of good form as you run at interval pace, but then feeling that your form begins to lose quality as you drop to a steady pace.

I often oversimplify the truth by saying that “anyone can run well, when running fast“. As discussed above, this isn’t exactly true!

Upon reflection, what I should be saying is that for a distance runner, the goal should be to employ the efficiencies of good “fast pace” running form, when running steady. That’s the true skill!

Let’s not forget that for many age group Ironman triathletes, the goal is being able of hold and maintain a steady 5min/km pace (for example) for the duration of a marathon, off the bike. This obviously requires you being able to maintain good form at a steady aerobic pace. This form will be naturally impacted by fatigue, so it’s imperative that you learn to take the elements of good form that are apparent in your interval pace and implement them in your steady pace running form.

Finding the optimum stride length, cadence, posture etc… for the desired steady pace is the skill to perfect. Work on this to improve efficiency, rather than doing what many age groupers will do, which is going “big gear, slow cadence” with their steady running form.

What About The Kenyans?

Indeed. They are both fit, and fast!

We often hold the East Africans up as examples of great running form. In reality though, they’re not perfect either, and also observably change in form as a marathon progresses. They’ll have a marathon over and done with in little over 2 hours, and being able to run at such a pace for that duration means that they’ll certainly be displaying many of the elements of good form that we are looking for – as well as having massive engines!

I wonder what their form would look like running at 5min/km for the 3:31:00 it would take to complete a marathon at that pace…?

Food for thought!

About The Author

James has an academic background in Sport Rehabilitation and a special interest in Applied Biomechanics. He currently coaches a large number of Runners and Triathletes across all levels of ability and performance. He's grown a strong reputation for enabling athletes to improve their running performance and overcome running injuries through improving their Running Technique and developing Running Specific Strength.



  • Thanks James,
    Really interesting, I’m looking forward to testing some of this out with you on the track next week. It will be interesting to see if (as I imagine) my form does actually improve as I up the pace. Or if, as you suggest, form stays constant. I guess the video will show.
    The goal being: better form equals more speed for less effort (of which fitness is a part)!
    Fascinating – thanks for this and the other blog posts.

  • I was talking with a friend about when he ran a marathon with a much slower athlete. My friend commented that he was more sore after that slow “easy” marathon than any faster one he’s ever ran. His reasoning? With the slower pace, he bounced up and down A LOT to help him stay at that slower pace.

    Also, when accelerating during the final stretch of a 5k for example, increasing stride frequency is foremost on my mind :)

  • Is is a good idea at only run with good technique and stop when not able to do that anymore? Coming back from a long injury and being untrained and overweight i cannot hold good running form (sort-of) more than a few minutes. Is it better to do this in interval form and gradually increase the length of intervals, stopping whern form becomes bad, until i can (hopefully) run stead state for longer time with good form? So running would essentially consist of running drills and sucessively longer intervals only.

  • I had the same “problem” — felt that I could only maintain good form if I kept an interval pace. Then I read another article on this site where James mentioned in a comment that the amount of heel lifting depends on the pace — you shouldn’t be kicking your butt at 9 min/mile pace! I guess I felt that my form was bad because I wasn’t lifting the heel and knee enough.

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